Walk up to an Avis rental counter at the airport in San Francisco, Newark or Fort Lauderdale and you could drive away with a car connected to the Internet. Meet Sterling Pratz, a former pro race driver, whose company Autonet Mobil

e makes it all possible. Atelier: Tell us about yourself. Sterling Pratz: For 15 years, I was a pro race car driver. When I joined Xerox, I continued to race because the company benefited from the exposure. Then I had a start-up called INW which designed network testing tools for telecommunication companies. I had lots of contacts in the auto industry and in the telco industry. Photo: Sterling Pratz, CEO, Autonet Mobile A.: How did the idea of bringing Internet into cars come about? S.P.: When you drive at night, you see all those lit DVD screens inside the cars. If I were a kid, I would hate watching the same thing all the time. I would see my niece who was 7 on her laptop, playing Internet-based games or chatting with her friends. I thought “I have to put Internet in the car.” On the other hand, I was also thinking about the professionals who are always looking for an Internet connexion when they are travelling. Truck drivers have to stop after driving for 10 hours; they need to have connectivity even if they can’t stop near a Wi-Fi spot. A.: Isn’t the auto industry looking into this? S.P.: When I spoke to car manufacturers, I realized they had 10-year plans and they were focusing on in-dash functions. They did not feel the urgency. I did not want to wait that long because Internet is our mean of communication now. With Doug Moeller, Autonet Mobile’s cofounder and a networking specialist, we decided to develop our own solution. We had hoped to use existing technologies, but we had to create our own to eliminate the session failures. A.:How does it work? S.P.:The unit functions as a router that accesses the Internet via the 2.5 or 3G cellular network and then sends it throughout the car using a Wi-Fi connexion. It works wherever you have cell coverage which is 90% of the country. The unit retails for $399. For a portable unit, it costs $49 dollars a month. You can take it into your hotel room or to a meeting. For a unit that stays in the car, it is $29 a month. Several devices can connect at the same time. People who have multiple users in the car seem happy. The Autonet Maprouter A.: What is the feedback from users so far? S.P.: We are not allowed to quote figures by Avis, but they have rented a lot of units and we have received amazing feedback. We have built an Avis Connect portal. Using one button, you can get restaurant and hotel reservations, flight information or movie schedules. When people are on the road, time and organization are priorities. After six weeks, we can say that 50% of the users are professionals who enjoy taking the unit with them to their meeting or their hotel and 50% are families and foreign visitors. We have outfitted several rock bands on tour and three Nascar drivers. We have hundreds on pre-orders on our site. We are going to sell directly to individuals as well as through dealers. A.: How do you imagine the future? S.P.: Within a year, Internet in the car will be an option offered by dealers. But I think that within three years, it will become a factory option for mid to high-end cars. We are also working with car companies to put our system into their car. We have thousands of requests from France, Germany and the UK. We are looking for partners in Europe and are hoping to roll out at the beginning of 2008. Iabelle Boucq   FEEDBACK For comments on this article, email us at editorial@atelier-us.com